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For information on ARPA-funded programs, please visit the Economic Recovery Programs page.

Sometimes, tough tasks require outside-the-box thinking.

Then again, sometimes you just need a little help from your neighbors.

In the town of Benkelman last week, an open house for the city’s newest single-family home wasn’t just a display of hard work and problem-solving, but a testament to the power of partnerships between Nebraska communities.

For years, the cities of Benkelman, Cambridge and McCook have been meeting regularly to draw up blueprints to address a regional need for affordable workforce housing.

“We’re all interconnected as communities in southwest Nebraska,” said Megan Spargo, head of the Benkelman Community Redevelopment Authority. “Our kids play each other in high school sports. When one of us is doing well, the others are doing well. Affordable workforce housing is a challenge we all have in common. We know we can make a lot more progress if we work together and lift each other up.”

Last week’s open house saw that collaborative spirit come to fruition, thanks in part to a unique funding opportunity provided by the State of Nebraska — but just as importantly, due to strong teamwork and creative thinking.

It was 2018 when the Nebraska Department of Economic Development (DED) released a request for proposals under the Nebraska Affordable Housing Trust Fund’s (NAHTF) Innovative Housing Demonstration program. Since 1996, the NAHTF has been the state’s largest funding source for affordable housing development, helping communities surmount financial obstacles standing in the way of building or rehabilitating homes at a price point accessible to households at or below 120% of the area median income (AMI).

“It’s not just a shortage of homes that’s the issue, but also of homes that are well-maintained and priced for everyday working families,” Spargo said. “Those houses tend to go really quickly in southwest Nebraska. There simply aren’t many available. That’s something that can really hold a community back from its true potential to grow.”

The Innovative Housing Demonstration program saw DED accept applications that showcased new and, well, innovative approaches to affordable housing development — approaches that could potentially serve as models for other communities that share similar goals.

For McCook, Benkelman and Cambridge, that innovative concept, which the partners developed over the course of years of discussion, was known as the Southwest Nebraska Revolving Housing Fund.

It’s one thing for a community to raise the local funds to build a home or two — though even that can be a major challenge requiring months or years of planning and fundraising. It’s quite another to keep the new builds rolling. In rural Nebraska, waiting for a developer to plan a subdivision simply isn’t enough; communities need skin in the game: to be willing and able to devote local resources to close the gap between what it costs to build or renovate homes and what families who move to town are willing and able to afford.

That power to help communities close the gap is what has made the NAHTF so impactful throughout the years. It’s also why an award from the NAHTF to the Southwest Nebraska Revolving Fund was a match made in affordable housing heaven.

It began with a commitment from each partnering community to provide the time, effort and funding necessary to make way for new homes. In Benkelman, for example, that meant demolishing 11 vacant or dilapidated housing units. Omelet, meet cracked egg.

A successful application to the NAHTF’s Innovative Demonstration Program was the next all-essential step. That achievement secured $405,000 for a housing fund that will revolve home-after-home and be a regional difference-maker for years to come.

It works like this:

Benkelman goes first, borrowing enough from the fund to finance a quality, affordable housing unit. When that unit sells at a strategic price point, the fund is replenished.

It’s the revolution behind the program that’s revolutionary. An answer to the question of how, not simply to build homes for a moment, but to generate housing momentum.

You know what they say, a housing market in motion stays in motion.

Next up? McCook. Then Cambridge to come. And finally, back to Benkelman. May the circle be unbroken.

Andy Long is Executive Director of McCook Economic Development Corporation.

“We want to give a ton of credit to Southwest Nebraska Betterment Corporation for helping us develop this concept,” he said. “This would not have been possible without their incredible support, and our entire region appreciates everything they do for our area. The relationships were key in this. We all trusted each other, and were willing to go out on a limb to work together and make this happen. That trust has really paid off, and we have a lot to look forward to in terms of what we are going to accomplish.”

Kandra Kinne, Cambridge City Clerk, said Cambridge looks forward to its first build from the fund, and has seen firsthand the immediate impact that can happen when communities succeed in expanding the housing inventory.

“In a community like Cambridge, new homes can be sold in literally a matter of hours,” Kinne said. “There is just such a big need. We have seen our population increase as a direct result of building new homes. This partnership has the potential to be a huge difference-maker for southwest Nebraska for years and decades to come. We all appreciate the support of the Department of Economic Development and the NAHTF for helping us bring it to life.”

In Benkelman on Thursday, as visitors and onlookers toured the new ranch-style home, with its slate-grey siding and white trim, few could imagine the countless hours, the untold discussions, and the cooperation imbued in every floorboard, shingle and nail. For one or more families down the road, the house will serve as a happy home. For Benkelman, it will provide a means for growth. But for the partners who worked side-by-side to build its foundation, it will stand as a reminder of the bond that exists between a region — the strength of the community spirit.

For more information on the NAHTF, visit opportunity.nebraska.gov.